Forget Elephants and Donkeys, Beware the Pigheaded

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck devoted his life to observable phenomena and logic, but he had a dim view of their power to change minds. “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light,” he said, “but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

If this is the fate of “scientific” truth imagine the acceptance trajectory of less rigorous varieties. It puts political spectacle in context as we witness how pigheaded allegiance to unproven (even disproven) assumptions repeatedly trumps observable evidence and reason.

It’s surely not facts that carry the day for many folks on such points of contention as the social utility of tax breaks for hedge fund managers and oil companies with GDP-like profits.

As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” That’s apparently why we invented campaign contributions and other bribes. Not that any of this is a modern-day revelation. Demosthenes said, “What each man wishes, he also believes to be true.” No doubt somebody else said something similar before the Greek.

It’s amusing (or infuriating, take your pick) how we keep retreading the same territory on this little planet. You’d think that once something is shown not to be true, however well intentioned, we’d swiftly do away with it and move on. Yet well chosen words and compelling logic have their work cut out for them when confronting the closed mind. Look at the drawn-out (and still unfolding) history of the Civil Rights Movement, in all its iterations.

We’ve always got the future, as Planck knew. So go ahead and marshal your arguments. Just factor in the blinding nature and inevitability of self-interest, fear, and pride (including probably your own from time to time). And, most important, because you can’t expect people to be reasonable or even fair (hello, Washington?) don’t forget to gird your loins if you expect to prevail … eventually.

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